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Do apes have human rights?

Spain may soon give rights to great apes. That could better their treatment. But it will erode rights.

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Within weeks, Spain is likely to go beyond laws that protect animals and be the first country to give rights to nonhumans, specifically great apes – gorillas, chimps, bonobos, and orangutans. If other governments follow, a line between mankind and animals will be crossed. Will such an action be a step up for humans?

Not if it diminishes the essence of what is a right.

The possibility of such a risk is why a parliamentary panel in Spain recommends only a few rights for these species that are close to humans in evolution and that can display certain humanlike behavior.

One such behavior is a limited capacity for human language. The famous captive gorilla Koko, for instance, has been taught – by humans – to communicate in sign language and can understand more than 2,000 spoken words. It's unlikely, though, any ape has the potential – as humans do – to express "I have constitutional rights."

Spain's proposed law might help bolster rules on humane treatment of animals. Its action would elevate great apes in captivity to more than property. They would have standing in court, much as children or unconscious patients do. They could be given a guardian or lawyer.

The law would grant apes a right to life. No human could kill them except in self-defense. They would have a right to be free of abuse. They couldn't be used in medical experiments, circuses, movies, and TV commercials. And so forth.

Apes would not have many other rights, such as the right to vote or to a free press. It is in such impossibilities that the very concept of animal rights falters. Rights are inherent to humans and guide the rules and laws that govern society. To parcel only a few rights to other species is to say other species are different. But humans and their rights are a whole idea.


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